Defensive Defense: A Better Way to Protect U.S. Allies in Asia

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The United States’ current defensive strategy in East Asia is unnecessarily expensive and dangerous, and not incredibly effective. Pivoting to a “defensive defense” makes more sense from a strategic and financial standpoint.

“US strategy in East Asia is defensive—seeking to maintain the territorial status quo and to preserve open trade and investment.” Militarily, the United States has adopted an “offensive defense” in the region, particularly with regard to China. That means that in the event of war, the United States would deploy “military assets close to China and launch conventional strikes against the Chinese homeland.”

Such an approach “is more expensive, more dangerous, and less effective than defensive defense,” an approach that combines defensive strategy with defensive operations. Adopting a defensive defense would help the United States “harmonize its defensive strategy in Asia with its operational plans there,” and prevent it from having to make offensive moves against China’s defense capabilities.

Current U.S. strategy dictates that in the event of a military conflict with China, the United States will defend its interests and allies by launching strikes against Chinese forces. In other words, the United States will “defend” itself by going on the offense. Of course, this means that U.S. forces must be positioned such that they are “well within range of Chinese sensors and weapons located on land, sea, and air.”

There are two main problems with this approach. First, China can match the U.S. approach while spending less, since they have the “home field advantage.” Second, acting in such close proximity to China runs the risk of the United States interpreting Chinese defensive maneuvering as a potential threat, and lashing out unnecessarily.

The United States’ present offensive defense “entails significant costs, both in terms of money and reduced military effectiveness.” To make matters worse, if the United States continues to build up its offensive posture, “Chinese leaders may reasonably fear that the United States has offensive strategic intentions,” and could increase their nuclear armaments as a result. This could lead to an arms race and sow the seeds for a nuclear conflict that decimates both countries.

Moreover, recent enhancements in “Chinese defenses make the current American offensive operational concept more costly than it used to be.” Indeed, “China’s current operational concept is primarily defensive,” contrary to certain analysts’ claims that China is mounting an offensive defense.

The United States should move quickly to assume a defensive posture. Broadly speaking, there are several benefits of such a position. “Defenders have less ground to cover than attackers to get to fights, so they can mass forces more easily than attackers and reinforce troops faster.” Additionally, defenders have more defined targets and can preserve forces and munitions. Defensive postures also have a domestic political advantage, since “defensive wars are easier to justify.”

“The United States should make two policy changes to implement an improved, “defensive defense” approach to protecting its East Asian allies.” First, it should push wealthy allies like Japan to improve its own anti-access/area denial weapons systems, rather than relying on U.S. strike capabilities. Second, “the United States should reconfigure its military plans to rely more on allies’ defenses.” This will allow the United States to reduce its commitment in the region without jeopardizing security outcomes.

The United States will need an effective defensive strategy as it moves further into a period of great power competition with China. However, “the offensively-oriented dominance approach comes with a growing price tag, diminishing effectiveness, and rising tension with China.” Shifting to a “defensive defense” can reduce the likelihood of conflict and shore up U.S. alliances in East Asia while allowing the United States to reduce its military commitment to the region.

Read the full report here.